His friends and relatives describe Altaf Ahmad Bhat as a simple man, always anxious to stay out of trouble. The 45-year-old had three young children and threw all his energies into running his business, a shop selling construction materials. He had started his business young. On most days, you would find him in his shop off the highway in Hyderpora, an affluent area in the outer reaches of Srinagar.

He had lived all his life in the city’s Barzulla locality. Recently, he moved into a new house he had built near his ancestral home. “His house doesn’t have a proper gate yet as construction work is still going on,” said a relative.

Bhat was an introvert, his relatives say, although he always wore a smile on his face. “Since his shop was on the highway, where there is security round the clock, he would share his tea with the troops deployed near his shop,” said one relative. “He was friendly with them.”

As a resident of garrisoned and barricaded Srinagar, Bhat also feared the police and the army – there was no telling who would be the next victim of security crackdowns or gunfights between militants and armed forces. “He would panic at the sight of armed forces,” said his niece, journalist Saima Bhat.

So when security forces circled Hyderpora on the evening of November 15 and asked Bhat to accompany them on a search, he was visibly disturbed. He would be killed within hours, branded a “terror associate” by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. His family insist Bhat was used as a “human shield” by security forces in a staged gunfight.

The ‘encounter’

On the evening of November 15, the police announced that a gunfight had broken out between militants and security forces in Hyderpora. According to the statement, a joint team of the police, the Army’s 2 Rashtriya Rifles and the Central Reserve Police Force had launched a cordon and search operation based on a “specific input” about the “presence of terrorists in an illegal call centre rented for business in a private building”.

The next morning, Kashmir Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar told reporters that four persons were killed in the gunfight, including two militants. The police identified the militants as Haider, a Pakistani national, and Amir Ahmad, from the Banihal area of Jammu’s Ramban district. His full name was later revealed to be Amir Ahmad Magray.

The two other men killed were identified as Bhat, who owned the building in which the alleged gunfight took place, and Mudasir Gul, a doctor-turned-businessman who rented the first floor of the building for his offices.

“In order to show the suspect call centre in the building, [the] owner of the building namely Altaf Ahmad as well as the tenant namely Mudasir Ahmad were also called to accompany the search party,” said the police statement issued on November 16. “As the search party approached towards [sic] a room in [the] top floor of the building, the hiding terrorists started firing indiscriminately towards the party which was retaliated. However, in the initial exchange of fire, both the individuals accompanying [the] search party received critical gunshot injuries and succumbed to their injuries.”

Scroll.in contacted Kumar to ask if Bhat and Gul had been given any protective gear, such as bullet-proof vests, when they were aiding security forces during the search. A response is awaited.

While police initially said that both Bhat and Gul were “terror associates”, it later amended this version. The statement issued on November 16 did not suggest Bhat was involved in militant activities. It did, however, claim that Gul had “facilitated” the escape of a foreign militant after he opened fire on the police in Srinagar’s downtown area on November 14.

The statement also accused Gul of running an “illegal call centre” from the rented premises.

Lieutenant General DP Pandey, general officer commanding of the Army’s 15 Corps, echoed these claims and called Gul a “white-collared terrorist”. “People who act behind [the scenes]... to recruit and fund terrorism in Kashmir should be questioned by our people,” he said.

An army spokesperson in Srinagar did not want to comment on allegations that three out of four men killed on November 15 were civilians, saying the “matter is a subject of investigation”. Asked whether it was standard protocol to take civilians for search operations when there was a threat of militants opening fire, he said the army “attempts to minimise collateral damage to civilian life and property in operations”.

The spokesperson added, “All security forces including CRPF and JKP ensure safety of civilians to avoid collateral damage even at [the] cost of letting hardened terrorists get away”. He cited an operation in Srinagar on November 14, when a police officer had been injured in a shooting by militants but security forces “exercised maximum restraint” and held fire, considering the risks to civilian safety. He also said that “it is an endeavour of all security forces to seek surrender (even of Pakistani terrorists)“.

The building owned by Altaf Ahmad Bhat. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

Scenes from a showroom

People at the spot remember the events of November 15 differently. Like most days, the cluster of automobile showrooms and repair shops along the Hyderpora highway had been buzzing with activity. But as the days were growing shorter with winter, the shops were winding down early. Bhat was also planning to shut his shop and call it a day. “He always made sure to offer evening prayers at his local mosque,” recalled Saima Bhat.

But around 4.30 pm, security forces cordoned off the area around Bhat’s building and began searches. Around 40 people-50 people, mostly workers and businessmen in the area, were lined up and searched on the street. Then their phones were taken away and they were herded into an automobile showroom about 50 metres from Bhat’s shop, said many of those who had been confined in the building.

Bhat and Gul were among them. A relative of Bhat who had also been confined in the showroom remembered the two men smoking a cigarette anxiously. Twice, Bhat had been summoned by security forces to accompany them on the search.

When they asked him to come along a third time, Bhat looked scared, the relative recalled. “He asked Dr Mudasir to come along with him,” said the relative. “Since they knew each other, he complied and went with Altaf. The forces didn’t ask for Dr Mudasir but only Altaf.”

This contradicts the police claim that Mudasir Gul was a “top rank OGW”, who was “called to accompany the search party.” “Overground worker” is the name given to non-combatants who provide logistical support for militants.

As the men in the showroom waited for Bhat and Gul to return for a third time, the silence was broken by screams that seemed to come from Bhat’s building.

“It sounded like someone was being beaten up,” the relative recalled. “I don’t know if it was Altaf but I remember somebody was crying for help.” After that, they heard gunshots. “The firing continued for at least five to six minutes. Then, after a lull, there was another round of firing. We didn’t know what was happening outside,” he added.

During the initial round of searches in Bhat’s building, security forces had also frisked and questioned 22-year-old Amir Ahmad Magray, who worked as a peon in Gul’s office and lived on the premises. “But Amir was not inside the showroom,” said Bhat’s relative. “The forces had let him go after questioning.”

According to reports, Magray had then made his way to the canteen of a nearby private hospital. He had spent nearly half an hour there when he was summoned again by security forces who wanted him to accompany them on the search. “Tell me, if he was a militant, would he not flee the moment the forces let him go the first time?” demanded Bhat’s relative. “Why would he come back?”

The searches went on for hours. It was around 11 pm when the men in the showroom ventured out and realised what had happened. “We heard the cries of Bhat’s brother and that’s when we came out,” added the relative.

The families of Bhat, Gul and Magray have rejected all police claims that they were involved in militancy. Their death, they say, was “cold-blooded murder”.

‘He would befriend you in an hour’

After the alleged gunfight, the police said they had seized computers, a map of the United States of America and various virtual foreign numbers from the call centre run by Gul. “The recoveries and other digital evidences indicated that a fake call centre was established to provide logistic support to the active terrorists,” the police said.

Gul’s relatives and friends say the claims are laughable. “What is a call centre supposed to have if not computers?” said a childhood friend. “We find computers and other digital devices in every office. By that logic, every office is a hideout. The police also said that there were kitchen items and food packets in the premises. Is it not natural to have that in every office? How does that prove it was a militant hideout?”

If Bhat was an introvert, 42-year-old Gul is remembered as a friendly, dynamic personality. “He was someone who would befriend you in an hour,” recalled the childhood friend, who had grown up with Gul in Srinagar’s Parraypora locality. “And then you trusted him so much that you could ask for anything – money or whatever else you needed. He would never refuse.”

Gul had trained as a dentist. But he found it difficult to get a job after the government freeze on hiring dentists in Jammu and Kashmir, in place for over a decade. He then ventured into various businesses and did well. “He had a business mind,” said Raees Ahmad, a relative. “While he was into real estate, he also owned a ready-made garments shop. He would also construct buildings on contract.”

Always on the lookout for a new business opportunity, Gul had recently hit upon the idea of starting a call centre from his offices in Hyderpora. “Some of his friends had suggested that a call centre was a good business. He was in the process of starting it and had bought equipment,” said the childhood friend. “He had even made cabins for the executives to attend calls.”

According to his relatives and friends, Gul had a wide social network, including businessmen, bureaucrats and even police officers. “Those who know him are banging their heads,” said Raees Ahmad. “They know Mudasir was not a man who would be involved in such activities.”

Gul is survived by two wives and three children, the youngest of whom is an 18-month-old girl. “His parents are old and his children are too young to understand their loss,” Ahmad added.

‘An educated boy’

Every evening, Muhammad Lateef Magray called his son in Srinagar from their home in Gool in Ramban district. But on the evening of November 15, Amir Magray’s phone was switched off. The next morning, Muhammad Magray learnt his 22-year-old son had been killed. “No one called us to participate in his funeral,” said Muhammad Magray, who had travelled to Srinagar after hearing the news.

Aamir Magray was the second of his four sons, “an educated boy”. While he was pursuing religious studies, he worked as a helper in Gul’s office to make some money on the side. “I was poor. If I was not poor, why would I send my son to work there?” asked Muhammad Magray. “Militancy devastated us.”

In 2005, Muhammad Magray had killed a militant and was rewarded for it by the government. But it had come at a cost. “My house has been under security since then, I even had to leave my home due to fear of militants,” said Magray, a government employee. “How can they even think of calling my son a militant?”

According to Magray, he would not have hesitated to hand over his son to the police if he had done anything wrong. “I have killed a militant with a stone,” he said. “We have been fighting militants for the last 15 years. This is how they [the state] paid us back. By killing my innocent son.”

‘Justice is a big thing’

All four men were hurriedly buried in a graveyard in North Kashmir’s Handwara area, about 80 kilometres from Srinagar, on the morning of November 16. Since 2020, the police have stopped handing over the bodies of alleged militants killed in gunfights to their families. They claim it is to prevent large gatherings during the pandemic.

The police claim the families of Bhat and Gul were asked to take part in a discreet funeral in Handwara. Both families say they were not informed about the burials. “If the police say they called the families, can they show the numbers on which they called us or the person who informed us?” asked Saima Bhat.

On November 17, the families of Bhat and Gul held a sit-in protest in Srinagar’s Press Enclave, where the offices of several media outlets are located. They were demanding the bodies of their relatives. The protest came to an abrupt end that night, when the police dragged away the angry, grieving families and detained them for a few hours.

Growing public anger, however, has forced the authorities to reconsider some decisions. On November 18, the Union Territory administration ordered a magisterial inquiry into the gunfight. It will have to be completed within 15 days. Later that evening, the authorities exhumed the bodies of Bhat and Gul from the graveyard in Handwara and handed them over for a second burial in Srinagar. Muhammad Magray has also asked for the body of his son to be exhumed and returned to him.

Protests still continue. The separatist parties of the Hurriyat called for a strike on Friday to protest against the killings. Srinagar saw a complete shutdown in response.

The Hyderpora incident is part of a growing list of purported gunfights where the families of those killed have contested the police version. In at least four gunfights since July 2020, they insisted that their kin were not militants.

In one of these cases, the so-called militants have been proved to be civilians. Three men killed in an orchard in Amshipora in South Kashmir’s Shopian district last year turned out to be labourers from Jammu. Months laters, the police charged an army officer and two civilians with the alleged murder and abduction of the three men.

In this case, the police are still to produce any evidence that Bhat was involved in militancy, one of his relatives said. But the families are not even asking for justice.

“Justice is a big thing in Kashmir,” he said. “All we wanted was to have a glimpse of the dead body, so that his children and family can mourn properly.”